Daily Archives: 9 March 2011

Knowledge transfer – it’s more than a buzz phrase

Every organization – every nonprofit, charity, non-governmental organization (NGO), civil society organization, government agency, for-profit business – large or small, anywhere in the world, has subject matter experts (SME), each with a deep knowledge and understanding of business-critical information. At nonprofits, some of these SMEs are paid staff, but many are volunteers.

You often find out who these SMEs are when they go on vacation and you suddenly realize you don’t know how to update text on the home page of your web site, or you don’t know how to direct a person who calls who wants to volunteer, or you are going through the list she left of everything to do Monday morning and, at the end of Tuesday, you aren’t even half way through the list.

Most organizations hire paid staff and recruit volunteers specifically because of the paid staff or volunteers’ particular area of expertise, expertise that the staff person has spent years cultivating in university academic studies and/or professional and volunteering experiences. You could never expect such a person to transfer all of his knowledge to a co-worker, a new hire, or a partner organization. However, there are business-critical functions at your organization that various staff members are doing — probably every staff member, including volunteers — that must be documented. Looking at a mission-based organization (a non-profit or an NGO, for instance), these critical functions could include how to:

  • update/change text on the web site
  • use the 5-10 most common functions on your phone system
  • direct phone calls and emails appropriately, for the entire organization or just within one department or program
  • direct inquiries from potential volunteers
  • direct inquiries from the media
  • retrieve data from a computer system backup
  • start a computer system backup, or how to ensure an automated backup took place
  • moderate your online discussion group
  • coordinate the logistics for any kind of meeting your organization has regularly, on site or online

This knowledge often needs to be conveyed to people with a lower level of technical expertise than the person in charge of these tasks – even if the person in charge of a task is an individual contributor with no staff to supervise — like the receptionist — while the person who needs to know is a senior manager.

(I have a firmly-held belief that the receptionist of an organization is often the most knowledgeable about what’s happening at the organization, and he or she is always one of the first persons I talk to if I’m consulting with an organization regarding its communications or volunteer engagement practices – but I digress…)

Content management systems (CMS), like a simple Intranet, that allows staff to upload and read each other’s information, and to share what they are working on, greatly assist in effective knowledge transfer and staff cross-training, but only if everyone has access to such, is encouraged to contribute to such, and is evaluated per their contributions to such. It’s about establishing a culture of internal transparency and rewards for sharing as much as it’s about creating a CMS. By contrast, partitioning information so that only certain people have access to it (knowledge hoarding), limiting it to folders in the file cabinets next to our desks, leads to inefficiency, duplication of effort, confused messages and errors.

This free document by Keith De La Rue details how to build a knowledge transfer toolkit. It’s a highly technical, jargon-filled document, and sometimes you will want to yell “Why don’t you just use plain English?!” Still, you will find it helpful if you want to ensure that business-critical information and practices at your organization are identified and documented. “This toolkit includes a range of individual elements, comprising content management, communications, learning and multimedia elements, coordinated as a managed program. Approaches to maintaining the currency and accuracy of content, dealing with knowledge hoarding and the relevance of social media principles will also be addressed.” Here’s more about Keith De La Rue.